The benefits of exercise are well-documented and undisputed. There’s no doubt that physical activity can positively impact health and decrease the likelihood of developing many chronic conditions like osteoporosis, obesity, and heart disease.
However, along with the benefits of exercise for your body, scientific research supports the link between physical activity and mental health. Research shows that exercise treats mental health conditions, as well as chronic pain. The mind-body link is integral to overall wellness and can help people live a healthier, longer, and better-quality life.
It’s all about endorphins
The benefits of exercise to the body and mind all begin with endorphins. Endorphins are the brain’s “feel good” chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that play an important role in the body’s ability to process pain and stress. Similar to the medications used to treat many mental illnesses, exercise increases levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.
Higher levels of endorphins result in less pain and decrease the negative impacts of stress. During and following exercise, positive effects ripple through the body as a result of physiological and biomechanical processes and help elevate mood, relieve stress, improve cognitive function, and enhance sleep. While research into chronic pain and exercise is just emerging, there is strong evidence supporting exercise for the inhibition of pain.
A sedentary lifestyle increases the likelihood of developing illness or a chronic pain condition. And, growing evidence suggests physical activity can improve your mental health as well. Guidelines from the American Heart Association recommend that adults participate in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, each week. Broken into small segments, like 20 minutes per day, this is very achievable. And, even small changes like walking to work, using the stairs, and parking further away from your destination can have an impact.
A long-term plan for health and wellness that includes regular exercise can benefit people of all ages. A healthy body does, in fact, lead to a healthy mind and a positive approach to overall physical and mental wellness can lead to a healthier, longer, and better-quality life.
Authored by Zach Meeker, Research Assistant for Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush University Medical Center
Smith PJ, Merwin RM. The Role of Exercise in Management of Mental Health Disorders: An Integrative Review. Annu Rev Med. 2021 Jan 27;72:45-62. doi: 10.1146/annurev-med-060619-022943. Epub 2020 Nov 30. PMID: 33256493; PMCID: PMC8020774.
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